RSPB blog: Scotland’s uplands going up in smoke in the nature & climate emergency

Further to the blog I wrote about Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing’s astonishing recent statement, “It’s essential that we carry on with muirburn” (see here), RSPB Scotland has now published a blog to discuss this burning issue [geddit?].

The RSPB’s Duncan Orr-Ewing and Andrew Midgely explain the charity’s position on moorland burning in the context of the nature & climate emergency and what policy commitments they want to see from the next Scottish Government.

[A grouse moor set alight in Strathbraan in March 2021, photo supplied by a blog reader who wishes to remain anonymous]

The RSPB blog begins…

As one of our key election requests, we are asking Scottish political parties to support the licensing of muirburn, and indeed the banning of muirburn on deep peatland soils (defined as over 30cm in depth). Peatlands are our vital carbon stores, and both their protection and restoration to healthy condition are critical to meeting Scottish Government targets for Net Zero carbon emissions.

Muirburn is the practice of burning vegetation and is mainly associated with managing land for grouse shooting, deer management or for sheep farming. Much of this vegetation burning is visible from plumes of smoke rising from moorland and upland farmland across the country during calm and warm spring days.

In recent years, RSPB Scotland has been receiving messages and photographs from concerned members of the public asking why, in the context of the climate and nature crises, the practice of muirburn is still going on in many of our upland areas across Scotland. Although lowland farmers no longer burn stubble—they have adapted and found alternative ways of managing the land—burning continues in the uplands.  Members of the public appear, quite rightly, to be struggling to reconcile the clear messages about the need to reduce carbon emissions with the locally widespread practice of muirburn.

To read the rest of this blog please click here

19 thoughts on “RSPB blog: Scotland’s uplands going up in smoke in the nature & climate emergency”

  1. Around a week ago, I saw muirburn on the South side of Tinto Hill, South Lanarkshire, between the towns of Lanark and Biggar. Unfortunately I didn’t photograph it. Just for interest and information.

  2. What about the expense and danger to the emergency services and the public when ‘muirburn’ morphs into ‘wildfire’?

  3. I have been watching again the excellent short film; ground nesting birds of the New Forest, narrated by Chris Packham, in it he explains the need for controlled burning and its benefits to birds, a good film, please all watch this on you tube.
    I too was burning dead rushes on 31st March on my Farm, they had been sprayed last year, this is to benefit not only the grass, but also nesting Lapwing, which prefer less rush.

    1. There is a big difference between burning New Forest gorse, which can grows to over 6 feet, and low lying moorland heather. No one has ever said why the heather couldn’t be cut using a forage harvester and the cuttings used. This would not be possible with gorse.

      1. It would be dangerous to man and machine trying to cut on some of the sloping hillsides, rocks sticking up almost unseen can wreck the cutting machine, only this year I wrecked my topper after hitting a stone, had it repaired ,it lasted a few hours and then the gearbox seals dropped out, it needs a major repair now.
        Ive just been watching some pretty bad scenes of burning out of control in Ireland, done at the wrong time of the year, totally senseless .

        1. I take your point but on that basis, no land would ever be cut, ploughed etc except by hand. It would simply be impossible to ‘do’ anything with it. The land would be allowed to regenerate – as has started to happen near me where a muirburn accidentally destroyed a huge area of heather so that bit of the moor has been left.

          Where I live they cut around the area to be burned to create a fire break and then burn the centre so cutting is possible.

        2. Whilst it might be seen as taking a step backwards- on rough terrain would not scything be the obvious answer?
          I suspect that due to the industrialisation of agricultural that there is now such a reliance on using heavy machinery with everything done on an industrial scale that there is no longer the manpower or skills available to work in these traditional ways?
          However there could be unseen benefits from using a low impact impact method such as scything, as wildlife would have the time to move out of harms way. Any rare plant species could also be noted and saved.
          It could be argued that as we have become reliant on heavy agricultural machinery, we have lost touch with the micro elements of nature- and in the process have contributed the massive decline in flora and fauna reported in the recent state of nature surveys.
          Perhaps a solution to managing sensitive habitat where flora and fauna is required to be protected, such as on a SSSI, would be a return the more traditional ways?
          Maybe the grouse shooting industry could take this on board, as it would give them the opportunity to offer more local employment when the heather was to be cut, -with groups of workers hired and taken onto the moors armed with scythes to cut back the heather, and then collected so it didn’t present a wildfire hazard.
          It appears to me this could be a win-win solution.
          No more acrid smoke from moors set ablaze, landowners able to claim how much they were doing to help reduce CO2 emissions, more local employment being offered during the winter months when tourism is at a low, and better land management of sensitive habitats.
          The extra financial cost could simply be passed onto “the guns”, who no doubt would be pleased to know that their money was supporting rural economies-as they like to so noisily proclaim!!!
          Will this happen?
          Will it hell!!
          …….and I use the word “hell”- because that it was what many grouse moors have become to so many species which don’t contribute to unnatural grouse numbers!!!!

    2. One of the problems of “improved pasture” is the invasive return of rush; what a mistake all that has been longer term particularly re carbon sequestration ! I agree that controlled burning in mosaics is an important management issue; the key as the RSPB note is not to burn on deep peats, but also whole hillsides is not a controlled burn. Once again the failure of proportion and the inherent ecological vandalism in a great deal of upland management in the interests of livestock or grouse (as with the keepering fraternity) is very much the issue. Its a broad contempt for Government and Civil Society frankly.You use the word “controlled” with regard to burn, if you get up in the hills you will see that most of the burning is “uncontrolled” and I suspect that would be Chris Packham’s general line also. I keep saying this but there are serious areas of agreement here if only people would listen to each other and dare I say it respect ?

  4. The strathmore Estate just north of Dundee have been burning the Moor like mad the last couple of weeks Absolute disgrace the smell of smoke has been choking.

  5. Burning of moorland as is a disgrace. Early nesting upland birds do not need disturbance. Lapwing curlew snipe all need peace.
    Grouse moor management is a disgrace. Ban the burn.
    Ban the disgrace of killing birds for fun. At everyone’s expense .

  6. Lammermuirs were burning a couple of weeks ago and again today.
    It was sad about the merlins there.
    They weren’t doing any harm.

  7. This picture is false not one person in shot so it’s probably a wild fire when gamekeepers do a burn they have several people putting it out as quick as it starts

  8. I was driving through an area of very top-end moors the other day and was suprised when something caught my eye about the little squares of newly burnt heather. The squares on flat ground (where tractor/ATV could be used) were in fact entirely mown / swiped – not burnt at all. Ah well I thought, that is at least a small gesture / concession by this particular Estate. A shame though that the patches on their uneven, steep and boulder strewn ground were still burnt…and also that the two Estates adjoining had simply burnt all of theirs, flat ground or not. Funny though, that the Estate that had used the mower on the flat ground also happens to be at the top of my own daft ‘Least likely to be Exterminating all Vermin including Raptors at all times’ League Table. (ps this is a very small League that is dwindling, sadly not growing).

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